"Radical love in action": How organizers supported vulnerable Muslim communities during Ramadan

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The month of Ramadan is coming to an end. While perhaps best known as when many Muslims fast for sometimes upwards of 12 hours, the month is about much more than food. As a religion, Islam places heavy emphasis on caring for your community. During Ramadan, Muslims give zakat, an annual tax on wealth that's one of the five pillars of Islam, and even those whose income isn't zakat-eligible often pour extra time and resources into their communities.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed how Muslims practice their faith. The communal iftars and crowded taraweeh prayers that went into the early hours of the morning are gone. But the drive to extend mutual aid to each other during the religion's holiest of months remains. In a second Ramadan under the coronavirus pandemic, many Muslims have taken on their own mutual aid projects as an extension of their faith.

Community efforts

Last year, the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, an organization providing resources around racial justice, developed a guide for mutual aid during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrated after Ramadan. The guidelines encouraged people to connect with neighbors and essential workers, distribute care packages, and more. Muslim ARC's executive director, Margari Hill, told Mic by email that the project was developed in response to how hard-hit people were by the pandemic.

"Ramadan is fundamentally about solidarity — the belief that we must draw no distinction between a friend and a stranger."

But Hill recognized that the project had its limitations. "Not everyone lives in a community where neighbors are dropping off groceries," she wrote to Mic. With this in mind, Hill launched the Ramadan mutual aid drive, a PayPal money pool that raised a little over $2,000 to make the month easier for those who are financially struggling. Instead of having to make individual fundraisers for themselves, people could just tap into Hill's PayPal pool. "I wanted to bring some ease into people's lives," Hill wrote to Mic.

In a similar vein, Zohran Mamdani, the New York State assembly member representing several neighborhoods in Astoria, Queens, has taken on a Ramadan meal project these past two years. The drive for it, Mamdani told Mic by email, comes from his belief that, "Ramadan is fundamentally about solidarity — the belief that we must draw no distinction between a friend and a stranger, all deserve dignity. For me, Ramadan has also always served as a reset and a time to be in union with my neighbors, my family, and my Muslim siblings across the world."

Mamdani started the project last year during his campaign, after noticing that many masjids, or mosques, were struggling during the pandemic. Traditionally, masjids provide food throughout Ramadan; sometimes, it is donated by members of the community, but masjids may also put up the money themselves. But the pandemic meant that some masjids could no longer afford their operating costs, let alone to provide extra meals. Mamdani, however, would not watch his neighbors go hungry.

In partnership with Aafia Chaudhry, a local organizer in the adjoining neighborhood of Long Island City, Mamdani's meals project provided 14,000 hot meals and 1,000 bags of groceries in its first year. This year, Mamdani said, the effort raised over $17,000 while still serving 2,300 hot meals and distributing 400 bags of groceries. The project came together due to donations from community members, state Sens. Michael Gianaris and Jessica Ramos, and support from organizations like the Indian-American Muslim Council, Astoria Food Pantry, and Astoria Welfare Society, as well as small businesses and a collective of staff and volunteers.

Beyond food

Thanks to a lack of data, it's difficult to gauge just how much the pandemic has impacted Muslims in the United States, financially or otherwise. But in 2018, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that one-third of Muslims in the U.S. are at or below the poverty line. Black Muslims, in particular, are more likely than any other racial group to earn less than $30,000 a year.

Even without specific numbers, Muslims like Hill have seen the pandemic's harms firsthand. Beyond food, there are many other needs: Hill says that she's seen evidence of deteriorating mental health, as many have become caretakers or otherwise struggled after family members contracted coronavirus. "People who have chronic conditions seem to especially be struggling financially with medical bills due to the rising cost of treatments," Hill said. "But I also see a lot of personal crowdfunds, families struggling with funeral costs and medical bills. It is so frustrating because medical care is a human right."

In addition to the Muslims served by community projects like Mamdani's and Hill's, there is another population in need of assistance that is often rendered invisible: incarcerated Muslims. As a whole, Muslims are over-represented in state prisons, with civil rights organization Muslim Advocates writing in their 2019 report, "The significant presence of Muslims in prison stands in stark contrast to Muslims' share of the U.S. population as a whole, which is just 1%."

"Mutual aid is radical love in action."

Taking note of the needs of incarcerated Muslims, Haddiyah Ali co-founded Abolition Ummah. The project began as a letter-writing campaign to send Eid cards to Muslims incarcerated in Connecticut to help combat the overwhelming isolation brought on by the pandemic. But, as Ali told Mic by email, "When volunteers started sending us the responses they got, we realized that there was a need for an organization that supports Muslim prisoners from an abolitionist lens, and decided to build Abolition Ummah in response to that need."

Incarcerated Muslims deal with a variety of issues driven by not only Islamophobia but also anti-Blackness, sexism, and more. For example, facilities may charge three times more for copies of the Quran than for the Bible. And as Ali noted, prisons and other detention facilities are predatory in nature, exploiting the labor of individuals who earn only cents a day to meet their basic needs. "Incarcerated Muslims in Connecticut can make as little as $0.75 a day and then be charged $17 for a hijab, $15 for a prayer rug, $6 for a kufi, and $32 for a Quran," Ali wrote.

Staying connected

Abolition Ummah supports incarcerated Muslims on two levels. First, Ali shared, the organization tries to improve their material conditions, in part via a mutual aid fund that is used to pay for educational resources, food, entertainment, and hygiene necessities. Beyond that, Ali said, "It also means acting as advocates — we work with lawyers to provide prisoners with legal support after they’ve faced abuse from prison staff, and we raise awareness when they face structural barriers to fasting, such as not being delivered their suhoor [the early morning meal during the month of Ramadan] or not being given medication outside of fasting hours."

An example of such structural barriers can be seen in a letter documented by Abolition Ummah on its Instagram. In it, a woman shared that in past years, Muslim women at her facility were able to take their medication early in the morning during Ramadan to accommodate their fast. But this year, the woman shared that a staff member tried to force her to take her medication during the day instead, which would violate the principles of Ramadan. When the staff member was corrected, the woman wrote, the staff member "got upset because she no longer had control over me" and allegedly retaliated by searching the woman's cell and writing her up for infractions she had not actually committed.

This is why Abolition Ummah places great emphasis on forming connections with incarcerated Muslims, by writing letters, taking phone calls, and making dua with them. As Ali wrote, "The brothers and sisters that we support behind bars are not charity cases or people we're looking to 'save.' They are our comrades and members of our community that deserve the same connections we enjoy with one another that make Ramadan feel whole."

Incarceration, by its very nature, is meant to separate people from their communities and support networks. While the state makes it difficult to foster these relationships, Ali wrote, "As Muslims, it is our responsibility to find ways to connect with people that the state is attempting to disappear, and remind them and their captors that we have not forgotten about them. Mutual aid is radical love in action. It is life-affirming work and our incarcerated kin cannot be forgotten in these efforts."

Ramadan is coming to an end, but the need for assistance will remain long after the month is over. And yet, the initial flood of mutual aid projects that came with the pandemic last spring have begun to die down. The calls to return to normalcy continue — even though the pandemic itself is far from over, and the "normal" days weren't all that great, either. As Mamdani, the New York State assembly member, wrote, "The pandemic has brought attention to the crisis we were already in."

"Going through two Ramadans during COVID, the needs of our neighbors have grown, and the institutions that normally provide for these needs are hurting," Mamdani wrote to Mic. It's been a series of compounding crises that have made the community's needs clearer than ever. And while that can be a daunting truth, it's also an inspiring one.

"We've been able to reimagine, on a small scale, what a world would look like where we care and provide for each other," Mamdani wrote. "As we rebuild after the pandemic, we have the opportunity to learn lessons from this solidarity, and build a better world that strives beyond just 'normal.'"